Somehow, calories have received a bad reputation among people. But why? A calorie is only a unit of measurement. The calorie is the amount of energy it takes to heat one gram of water by one degree Celsius. Food calories, large calories, the number written on the back of every packaged food and that the gym poster says you’re burning per class, are actually kilogram calories, equal to 1,000 small calories. In simple terms, the number of calories in foods represent the amount of energy they can provide your body with. We need energy so why do we hate calories? Here’s the thing. In order to lose weight, we must use or “burn” more calories than we digest, right? You know this. If we digest more calories than we burn, our body stores that energy potential as fat for later use. When we create a calorie deficit by digesting fewer calories than our activity throughout the day requires, our metabolism uses up that stored fat to get the calories it needs. We then lose weight because our body is using up our body fat. This is good, but don’t take it too far. If you continue to have a calorie deficit that is too great, your body slows metabolism and tries to store as much fat as possible, even by sacrificing muscle tissue first because it think you’re starving it. Too few calories will send your body into fat-storage mode and cause you to pack on more pounds. You need calories to live and thrive, but too much of any good thing can be bad.
Ever looked at a handful of berries and eaten the smallest ones first, leaving the big ones to be eaten last or picked the largest, brightest orange of the lot to eat? Ever taken the first sip of your latte and been surprised by just how sweet that barista must think you like your coffee drinks? This is just one problem with relying on calorie counting. Rarely will what you are eating match exactly the estimate number of calories you read on the menu or that popped up on the screen when you punched your snack into your calorie counting app. When you finish that 600 calorie cycling class at the gym and punch that in, did you stop to wonder if you were working just as hard as everyone else or even if you were working harder? DId you count 15 calories you burned running around the house looking for your keys this morning? What about the extra two hundred you burned cleaning the house this evening? Calorie counting isn’t a perfect formula so don’t take it so far as to ignore the needs of your body so you can stick to your estimation of the number of calories your body needs. You could easily be over or under-eating and left wondering why you aren’t losing weight!
“All calories are created equal.”
If all you need to do is count your calories, then why aren’t you eating 2,000 calories’ worth of donuts and candy bars each day? Because not all calories are created equal. Proteins and carbohydrates have a different calorie count than fats, and each have different effects on the body’s metabolism. Excess fat calories will cause you to gain more weight than excess protein or carb calories. This is because the process of turning dietary fat calories into storable body fat requires little work, but the process of turning protein or carbs into storable body fat actually burns up almost a quarter of the calories.The contrast of two foods with no calorie count also reveal how calories are not created equal. Fiber is not digestible (so it has no calorie count) and takes longer for your body to get rid of which keeps you full and satisfied (so you eat less), but fiber can influence the number of calories that you digest from the food you have eaten. Fiber can actually block some calorie digestion at the same time that it blocks calorie intake, but not every zero calorie food can benefit you like so. Some foods with no calorie count can be detrimental to your health. Diet sodas and other products containing artificial sweeteners may have zero calories but, over time, still cause your body to store fat. Don’t get caught up in the simplicity of adding up calories. The nutritional value of food is key to deciding which foods’ calories (or lack of calories) are worth eating. Feed your body the full spectrum of the nutrition it needs in smaller portions over the course of the day instead.
All these misconceptions of counting calories have shown the ugly side of counting calories and should make you wary of relying on calorie count alone, but don’t get caught up in bashing calorie counting so much as to ignore it completely. People who do count calories usually determine how many calories they need based on an estimate they received by checking gender, height, weight and level of activity boxes. The number of calories you receive is just that, an estimate, but it can be helpful in determining whether you are on the right track or way, way off. Most people are unaware of the excessive number of calories they consume, assuming they are eating hundreds fewer calories than they actually are! Basic calorie counting can be a wake up call and a learning tool. Someone who gives in to every whim may need to count calories to keep themself in check until they change their habits. Calorie counting can also help you determine the nature of a diet plan, whether it is a dangerous starvation diet or a seemingly generous diet that will produce minimal results. Listening to your body and becoming an intuitive eater are not easy skills to develop. Let your calorie estimates keep you on track while you learn about portion control and become familiar with your body’s nutritional needs and signals for hunger and satisfaction.